Throughout the technical writing program, there are habits I have had to unlearn. Because my background is in history, I’m used to writing long essays. While conciseness is important in essay writing, it’s inevitable that if a professor requires a 15 page essay, the paper will be 15 pages, even if the arguments and supporting evidence could be written in 10 or 8 pages.
I want to share a tip that helps me write concisely. I like to keep a list of words in my mind (or on paper) that I should avoid or replace if I notice them in my writing because they are too vague, passive, or unnecessary.
You can find many of these lists on the internet. Here is the first one I came across and often refer to.
I have listed examples below:
- there is
- there are
An excellent resource on this topic is On Writing Well by William Zinsser (a great book!). The second chapter “Simplicity” is about the clutter in writing today.
“Writing improves in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there. “Up” in “free up” shouldn’t be there. Examine every word you put on paper. You’ll find a surprising amount that shouldn’t be there.” (Zinsser, 12)
Here are the clutter words Zinsser mentions (use the words in brackets instead):
- at this point in time (now)
- currently (now)
- in a sense
- for the purpose of (for)
- I might add (“If you might add, add it.” Zinsser, 15)
- It is interesting to note
- assistance (help)
- numerous (many)
- facilitate (ease)
- individual (man or woman)
- remainder (rest)
- initial (first)
- implement (do)
- sufficient (enough)
- attempt (try)
- referred to as (called)
“Is every word doing new work? Can any thought be expressed with more economy? Is anything pompous or pretentious or faddish? Are you hanging on to something useless just because you think it is beautiful? Simplify, simplify.” (Zinsser, 16)
Zinsser states that first drafts can often be cut by 50% and convey the same meaning.
My goal as I write and edit is to constantly ask myself:
Is every word doing new work?
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction. Rev ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.